The New Testament's Use of the Old Testament: A Seed Coming to Blossom
The New Testament primarily uses the Old Testament to show that God is bringing his promises to fulfillment. God’s history of revelation and redemption comes to a climax in a manner that is continuous with the Old. When we think of the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament there are a number of analogies that writers have used over the years. One of the more helpful analogies is that of a seed that has grown to fruition having now blossomed in the fulfillment of the plan of God.
Consider the composition of a seed. On the outside, it does not look like the full and final tree in fruition. However, the seed contains all the genetic material that will be ‘revealed’ as time progresses and a climax is reached. As we exam a seed, we understand at least in part what it will become. We can know what flower will come from the seed, but when it blossoms, we will see a greater beauty now present.
Similarly, the Old Testament's use of the New Testament shows a continuity between promise and fulfillment. A classic example is Peter’s preaching in Acts 2. He is very clear that precisely what is promised in Acts 2 has now been fulfilled. Peter in effect says “this that you see” is “that which was promised.” Even more, as Peter continues with the use of Psalm 16, he clearly shows how the Old Testament Psalm could not have truly been fulfilled in David since David died, was buried, his body decayed, and he was never resurrected. With respect to Christ’s fulfillment, Peter could again say “this is that.” The events were prophesied all along, but at least for Peter, seeing it happen helped him understand what God had said long ago.
This pattern of fulfillment gives us great confidence when we study the Scriptures. God keeps His Word. God has laid down the seeds in many times and in many ways as he spoke to the prophets throughout the long history of redemption (Heb. 1:1). The prophets had some understanding of what they were being told although they longed to look into the final fulfillment as to the nature and times of that which was promised (1 Pet. 1:10-12). They understood to some degree that they were prophesying the future sufferings and glories of the Messiah (1 Pet. 1:11). In this respect, as G.K. Beale and others regularly point out, the New Testament writers did ‘preach the right doctrines from the right texts.’
This said, it is important to understand how the New Testament often shows the blossoming of the seed. The continued revelation of God now comes to a climax as God speaks through His Son (Heb. 1:2). To use our analogy, that which was hidden in the genes now becomes manifest in its fullness. Even to the disciples, Jesus had to teach how we should understand the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 44). Even in our hermeneutical endeavors, guided by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we can look back through the Old Testament and see with fresh eyes what the Lord planted. There are things we now understand with greater clarity since the mystery prophesied has been revealed (Rom. 16:25-27).
While the NT uses the OT for ongoing examples and instruction to the believers, it always does so with the perspective that God’s promises of a final “age to come” where the Messiah rules has now dawned upon the people of God (1 Cor. 10:11). We have received a greater fullness of revelation that even the Old Testament prophets received. They understood key pieces, but we have seen the working of God fulfill what he laid down as a seed.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.